(CNSNews.com) – Administration officials and senior military officers are emphasizing that Pakistan’s cooperation against terrorists has improved significantly in the last 18 months, but the ongoing threats posed by the Taliban faction known as the Haqqani network and its jihadist allies shows there is a long way to go.
Vice President Joe Biden contended Thursday that collusion between some Pakistani intelligence elements and terrorists was something that had occurred in the past, but was being tackled.
“That’s been a problem in the past,” he said in a television interview. “It’s a problem we’re dealing with, and [it] is changing.”
Defense Secretary Robert Gates told a Pentagon press briefing that there had been a “dramatic” change over the past 18 months or so “in Pakistan’s willingness to take on insurgents and terrorists.”
Earlier in the week, Gen. James Mattis, in line to succeed Gen. David Petraeus as head of U.S. Central Command, told a Senate confirmation hearing that counter-terror cooperation with Pakistan was now “at an all-time high.”
All three men were responding to questions, arising from the leak of U.S. military documents, about alleged collaboration between members of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) and terrorists fighting coalition forces in Afghanistan.
British Prime Minister David Cameron sparked a diplomatic row when during a visit to the region he slammed Pakistan over the allegations.
“We should be very clear with Pakistan that we want to see a strong and a stable and a democratic Pakistan, but we cannot tolerate in any sense the idea that this country is allowed to look both ways and is able in any way to promote the export of terror, whether to India or whether to Afghanistan, or anywhere else in the world,” he said in New Delhi.
Pakistani officials hit back with denials, criticizing Cameron for basing his critical remarks on leaked documents which they described as unverifiable and outdated.
In contrast to the British leader’s approach, the line from Obama administration officials, delivered repeatedly this week, is that allegations of links between ISI elements and insurgent groups are not new and have been raised with Pakistan for some time; and that Pakistan had changed direction, as evidenced by its costly military offensive against militants in the tribal belt adjacent to the border with Afghanistan.
But the one tribal region that the Pakistani military has avoided, North Waziristan, is used as a haven by several terrorist groups. They include the Haqqani network, a Pashtun-led Taliban faction heavily involved in anti-coalition violence across the border in eastern Afghanistan, and the non-Pashtun Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT).
The U.S. has escalated drone-delivered missile strikes against terrorist targets in North Waziristan, but its appeals to Islamabad to extend its own military offensive to the region have been to no avail.
The widely-held view among security analysts – including Pakistanis – is that this reluctance is due to the historically close relationship between the ISI and the Haqqani group, which has its origins in the jihad against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s; and the ISI’s ties with LeT, a group set up with the agency’s backing in the 1980s, initially focused on fighting Indian rule in disputed Kashmir.
‘One of the most dangerous enemies we face’
Both groups have become increasingly active in Afghanistan. LeT has been involved in operations against coalition forces and is suspected of joint attacks with Haqqani terrorists against Indian targets in Kabul.
The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) reports incidents involving Haqqani operatives in Afghanistan on an ever more frequent basis, especially in Khost province, which lies directly across the border from North Waziristan.
They include in recent days the capture of “a Haqqani network sub-commander linked to attacks against coalition forces and responsible for facilitating the movement of weapons and ammunition into the Terayzai district” of Khost province; and a precision airstrike against a bunker complex where a senior commander “responsible for the overall command and control of all Haqqani and foreign fighter camps in the area was believed to be hiding.”
Last week, ISAF reported that coalition forces detained in Khost “a Haqqani network commander responsible for planning and facilitating attacks against coalition forces in the province. He is also the head mullah of a madrassa [religious school] in the village of Laken which he uses to plan attacks and recruit Haqqani operatives and suicide bombers.”
“The Haqqani network is probably one of the most dangerous networks here that we face,” U.S. Army Major-General John Campbell told a teleconference briefing from Bagram on Wednesday.
He described the network as an “agile enemy” that was responsible for “many” of the daily attacks against coalition forces and Afghan civilians.
Campbell is commanding general of Regional Command East, which covers 14 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, including Khost.
During a recent visit to India Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke publicly about both the Haqqani network and LeT.
He called the former “the most lethal network” faced by coalition forces in Afghanistan, and said LeT’s emergence and potential global aspirations was prompting heightened concern.
The Pakistan-related claims in the recently leaked military documents have resonated especially loudly in India, which for decades has been the main target of Pakistan-based jihadist groups.
India has long urged tougher international action against Islamabad over Pakistani ties to these groups, with matters coming to a head after one of the worst terrorist attacks in India’s history – a 60-hour assault by LeT gunmen in Mumbai that left 166 people dead in November 2008.
In Afghanistan, too, India has come under attack from Pakistan-linked terrorists. A July 2008 suicide bombing at the Indian Embassy in Kabul that cost 58 lives was believed to have been a joint Haqqani-LeT operation (LeT allegedly provided the bomber, a 22-year-old Pakistani). Both the Indian and Afghan governments accused the ISI of links to the attack, allegations that were supported by U.S. intelligence agencies.
(The Indian Embassy in Kabul was again targeted in a suicide bombing last October, with the Taliban claiming responsibility.)
Security analyst Bahukutumbi Raman, an Indian former counterterrorism official, questioned the Obama administration’s decision to integrate Pakistan into its Afghanistan strategy – including stepping up military and economic assistance to Islamabad – despite its awareness of ISI collusion with terrorists in Afghanistan both before and after President Obama took office.
“Even if the Obama administration did not want to act against Pakistan for killing Indians, one would have expected it to act against Pakistan for contributing to the deaths of U.S. soldiers by assisting the Taliban,” he wrote in an analysis.
“In spite of having and knowing all these details about the ISI-Taliban collusion, the Obama administration chose not to act.”
The U.S. Treasury Department in 2008 designated Sirajuddin Haqqani, head of the Haqqani network, as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” (SDGT) under an executive order designed to disrupt funding to terrorists by prohibiting Americans from transactions with them and by freezing any assets they may have in the U.S.
Last week it added his brother, Nasiruddin Haqqani, to the SDGT list.
However neither the Haqqani network, nor the broader Afghan Taliban itself, is listed as a “foreign terrorist organization” (FTO). The 45 groups currently on that list are subject to an asset freeze, members are denied visas to visit the U.S., and anyone providing them material support is committing a crime under U.S. law.
U.S. senators have been urging the administration for months to designate the Haqqani network as an FTO and the State Department says the process is underway.
LeT has been designated an FTO since late 2001.